Abstract

Underground taming of floods for irrigation (UTFI) is a new approach for mitigating flood impacts through targeted floodwater storage in depleted aquifers for irrigating crops in the dry season. UTFI not only fosters the much-desired conjunctive use and management of water resources but also provides the environmental services that are of high socioeconomic value. UTFI interventions are individually established at the local scale (e.g. village pond, check dam) but to achieve more substantial positive benefits at the scale of meso watersheds (10 s of km2) or sub-basins (100–1,000 s of km2) in the flood-prone river basins requires area-based implementation. Given the nature and scale required, UTFI needs to be managed at the community level with the help of appropriate institutional arrangements taking into account both the upstream and downstream locations. This paper reviews the existing institutional approaches and proposes an institutional framework that can help to mainstream UTFI management in the context of South Asia. The proposed model is centred on the existing formal institutions and also integrates non-market (participatory) and market (payments for environmental services) instruments that can provide win–win strategies for water resource management to downstream and upstream communities.

Introduction

Sustainable management of water resources is one of the most critical policy issues for the governments of South Asian countries (Moench & Dixit, 2004). The need for greater action in this domain is becoming more pressing, as communities in South Asia and across the globe are increasingly experiencing water issues (scarcity as well as excess) in various contexts. For instance, seasonal excess water flows causing floods often result in involuntary and sometimes permanent internal displacement (Iqubal, 2010), economic losses and loss of livelihoods (Shrestha, 2008; Ashraf et al., 2013), loss of human capital including lives, disruptions to education and work, and exposure to diseases and malnutrition (Shrestha, 2008) as well as mass evacuations and adverse environmental and social impacts (Gautam & van der Hoek, 2003). Water scarcity manifests as above-ground through meteorological and agricultural drought, which can be linked to an underground drought associated with over withdrawal of groundwater aquifers, causing excessive depletion, rising salinity and ecosystem sustainability issues.

Water scarcity percolates from the highest to the lowest levels of society. Water scarcity leads to inter- and intra-regional conflict between governments and industries (Joy et al., 2008). In most river basins, these situations of water scarcity and abundance coexist although they are divided by time and/or space. Monsoon floods are common in some of the dry regions, i.e. rainy season excess water and dry season scarcity of water (time dimension). Similarly, while some locations (downstream) experience flooding, others (upstream) face water shortages (space dimension). These anomalies are very common in most river basins and in the more flood-prone watersheds in all years in South Asia (Molden et al., 2014; Nepal et al., 2014).

Protecting flood-prone locations through flood water recharge of the depleted aquifers and using it for protecting dry season agriculture is termed underground taming of floods for irrigation (UTFI). UTFI is an improvised version of implementing managed aquifer recharge (MAR) methods such as the Ganges Water Mission (GWM), pumping along canals (PAC) and distributed pumping and recharge (DPR) (Khan et al., 2014). UTFI fosters natural and artificial recharge mechanisms while pumping is distributed across crop locations and it promotes the much-needed conjunctive use and management of water resources (Pavelic et al., 2012). This, however, requires a unified approach that considers both the supply-side and the demand-side management of water. From the supply side, creating or supporting the MAR infrastructure at scale is necessary for timely storage of large quantities of water in the aquifers in seasons when water flows are in excess, but not necessarily in drier years when flows may be needed to meet existing demands downstream. The demand side includes incentives to achieve widespread participation of farmers and institutional arrangements for establishing as well as manging infrastructure and recharging and recovering the water in a sustainable and equitable manner, cognisant of the trade-offs and needs of water users across sectors.

As UTFI requires infrastructure for greater aquifer recharge, regulatory instruments and institutional arrangements are needed to manage the infrastructure, water conservation, use efficiency, water use from aquifers and surface storages that are shared commonly by users. Therefore, it is necessary to identify mechanisms for sharing water as well as the costs and benefits. It may be noted that UTFI is not a straightforward case of cost-benefit analysis, as the costs and benefits take place in different locations involving private as well as public goods and services (Pavelic et al., 2015).

While top-down policies of command and control are most commonly applied, their effectiveness and sustainability in addressing the issues in the long run are often questionable. This is more so in the developing-country context where systems of governance are often weak and capacity to regulate or control land and water management-related activities is poor. Of late, bottom-up voluntary social regulation or market-based instruments in combination with the traditional command and control regulations are observed to be more effective in dealing with sustainable resource management (Pretty & Ward, 2001; Iraldo et al., 2014). However, different regulatory instruments and institutions operate in specific settings and their effectiveness varies across locations depending on the economic and socio-cultural conditions. Regulatory instruments can be enmeshed with present and future development-planning horizons or integrated into institutional arrangements and policy initiatives. The political economy factors play a critically important, if not a stronger, role too in adopting institutional arrangements embedding appropriate regulatory instruments. These factors are more pronounced at a small-to-medium scale, but can also take effect at a larger scale depending on the political gains that may be associated with them (Reddy et al., 2010).

UTFI as a total package deals with conjunctive water resources management, with specific foci in floods, surface water and groundwater resources. As a cross-cutting issue, institutions with a mandate in water issues are dispersed across ministries and sectors. Whilst some supportive elements may be already present, a unified framework is lacking for the implementation of UTFI at scale in South Asian countries. This paper reviews some of the pertinent approaches for managing UTFI. Specific objectives include:

  • assess the relevant institutional approaches to UTFI, particularly from a regional level in the South Asian context; and

  • identify potentially viable governance arrangements and policies for UTFI implementation initially on a pilot basis and ultimately on a broader scale.

UTFI: concept and feasibility

UTFI is an intervention applicable at the watershed or basin level across Asia and other settings that are prone to both floods and droughts1. UTFI helps reduce the intensity of seasonal floods by tapping and storing excess flood waters in aquifers for productive agricultural use. This stored water could be used during either the wet or the dry season through enhanced groundwater availability, which in turn stabilises and enhances crop production. This intervention provides the double benefit of reducing the adverse impacts of floods and boosting groundwater storage for greater irrigation and domestic uses. Improved availability of groundwater helps in enhancing agricultural productivity and production during the dry season, both due to greater irrigated area and higher crop yield (Shah, 2004).

Occurrence of floods is in a way linked to saturation of the subsoil. Floods in South Asian countries occur normally in humid and sub-humid tropics with very high rainfall. In such conditions UTFI relies on distributed pumping across the basin/sub-basin by the small-scale and marginal farmers. The pumping helps in creating/enhancing recharge potential in the aquifers. It is observed that dry season well irrigation is widespread in the regions. In fact, farmers have complained about the water table going down in recent years (LNRMI, 2017). Supporting and promoting high-value crops in these regions would increase groundwater use in the winter and summer seasons (Kumar et al., 2013). This would create enough aquifer space for recharge. Though this may look small at the village level, it is substantial at the basin scale. Besides, recharge structures are created on common lands (Figure 1) across the basin, which are mainly available in the form of village tanks and forest areas. In these regions land is scarce and finding common lands is difficult (Kumar et al., 2012a, 2012b). The principle of storing surplus water underground through various forms of MAR has been around for decades in the modern context (Dillon et al., 2009).

Fig. 1.

Recharge structures established under UTFI in the Ramganga sub-basin.

Fig. 1.

Recharge structures established under UTFI in the Ramganga sub-basin.

UTFI is a specific application of MAR that is distinct from existing forms of MAR. UTFI, in terms of the individual physical components, is not necessarily new, although the approach is. UTFI adds new value to often ad-hoc MAR efforts and puts it into a larger-scale perspective that offers a wider range of benefits and potentially provides net benefits for both upstream and downstream communities. Central to UTFI is dispersing recharge-enhancing interventions across strategic parts of the basin to provide supplies to meet additional dry season demand for this water recovered via agricultural wells, rather than allowing surface water to concentrate and be problematic in the floodplain areas. This increased irrigation intensity would enhance economic benefits substantially whilst simultaneously mitigating the flood risks downstream.

Hydrological and geohydrological aspects2

The use of surface structures (Figure 1) such as infiltration basins that are easy to construct and maintain is preferable to deep infiltration systems such as recharge wells that are prone to excessive clogging unless there are high levels of pretreatment of recharge water and careful ongoing maintenance. Whilst this will preclude the potential for UTFI in some hydrogeological settings due to low-permeability soil layers or poor surficial aquifers, sites can be identified where conditions are most suitable. Aquifers targeted for storage would therefore typically be the uppermost unconfined or semi-confined formations with latent storage capacity and adequate aquifer productivity (Pavelic et al., 2016). Given the types of operational characteristics outlined, flooding events that are of a larger scale and longer duration are more suited to UTFI than those that are rapid or more localised. The UTFI approach emerged as a spinoff from a pilot-scale MAR trial conducted in a sub-basin of the Chao Phraya River Basin, Thailand (Pavelic et al., 2012).

UTFI interventions need to be implemented at scale in order to be effective, particularly given the scale of seasonal flooding as well as the size of the risk that communities/cities are exposed to. Factors such as the extent of flooding (area), quantity of water that can be tapped, nature and size of aquifers (hard rock/alluvial or deep/shallow, etc.) and their connectivity to the land surface determine the types of intervention required (ponds, check dams, recharge wells, bunding, etc.). Suitability of UTFI in all flood-prone river basins is therefore not assured and significant differences in suitability are common across watersheds within a given river basin (Brindha & Pavelic, 2016). Differential types of intervention are required between locations within a flood-prone region; that is, types of embankment structure, drainage and so on vary according to soil, slope, etc.

Environmental, socioeconomic benefits and institutional requirements

Some of the benefits that emerge from UTFI are termed environmental services that are beyond flood mitigation and boosting irrigation, and which have immense socioeconomic value. For instance, the direct environmental services include flood mitigation, increased groundwater availability during the dry season (which is pumped for irrigation by the farmers) and base flows into water bodies enhancing environmental assets. Indirect services include sustainable drinking/domestic water provision, improved livelihoods, and enhanced economic well-being including health and education, among others. Given the magnitude and intensity of floods, these interventions need to be taken up at a scale that considers not only hydrological units and aquifers, but also involves several communities. Both may cut across administrative boundaries. It is also difficult, if not impossible, to identify or separate the service providers and service users. Whilst it is easier to demarcate the areas and communities that benefit from flood-mitigation interventions, it is more difficult to specify the communities that benefit from the enhanced groundwater recharge. This is due partly to surface–groundwater interactions as well as the underlying institutional environment and socioeconomic conditions that mediate access rules and benefits. An aquifer recharged/depleted at one place may benefit/disbenefit the offsite communities, who may be considered as indirect beneficiaries/losers. The nature of costs and benefits associated with UTFI varies between upstream and downstream (Figure 2). The interplay of these factors brings greater complexity to the implementation and sustainability of UTFI, which must be addressed by institutionalising current approaches and policies for sustainable water management.

Fig. 2.

Institutional principles for UTFI implementation. Notes: A (DM) = downstream with high flood intensity. Flood mitigation is the direct benefit and disaster-management department is the major stakeholder. B (IM/MAR) = downstream location with high flood intensity where UTFI (irrigation management and managed aquifer recharge) interventions reduce flood intensity. Irrigation and groundwater departments are the major stakeholders. C (WSM/GM) = upstream location where UTFI (watershed) interventions would help recharge groundwater and reduce flood intensity downstream. Groundwater and rural development/agriculture departments are the major stakeholders. D (FM) = forest areas upstream with forest-management interventions to reduce flood intensity. Forest department is the main stakeholder.

Fig. 2.

Institutional principles for UTFI implementation. Notes: A (DM) = downstream with high flood intensity. Flood mitigation is the direct benefit and disaster-management department is the major stakeholder. B (IM/MAR) = downstream location with high flood intensity where UTFI (irrigation management and managed aquifer recharge) interventions reduce flood intensity. Irrigation and groundwater departments are the major stakeholders. C (WSM/GM) = upstream location where UTFI (watershed) interventions would help recharge groundwater and reduce flood intensity downstream. Groundwater and rural development/agriculture departments are the major stakeholders. D (FM) = forest areas upstream with forest-management interventions to reduce flood intensity. Forest department is the main stakeholder.

Given the technical design of the system, establishing, testing and promoting suitable institutional arrangements are critical for designing, implementing and managing UTFI interventions at scale. In the absence of efficient institutional arrangements, it would be difficult to establish and manage over the long term the infrastructure that reduces flood impacts in the downstream and enhances benefits from groundwater in the upstream. Though the existing participatory institutions for natural resource or disaster management in South Asian countries (i.e. watershed committees; forest-management committees, water user associations; water-management organisations; participatory flood-management committees, etc.) could form the basis, they need to be modified to suit the spatial complexities and varied cost and benefit flows across the locations of UTFI interventions. Some of the existing participatory institutions are semi-formal and programme-specific, where the functionality of the institution ceases with the programme. Whilst these interventions are focused on enhancing the benefits to the communities, UTFI has twin objectives of reducing damages from floods and enhancing the benefits in groundwater-depleted areas. The role and management of groundwater in the context of UTFI make the institutional design more complex. Institutional or participatory approaches to groundwater management are still at a nascent stage in most South Asian countries. Some of the local-level successful models in this regard could help in designing scalable institutional arrangements for UTFI.

UTFI interventions are derived from, and have strong overlap with, those adopted under watershed development (WSD) and MAR, and have direct linkages to flood mitigation (FM) as well. Whilst MAR interventions address groundwater recharge, WSD and FM interventions address run-off control, soil-moisture conservation, surface-water management and groundwater recharge. All three interventions are land-based requiring allocation of land (private or public), ideally in a contiguous manner. All three are integral to UTFI though the location of specific interventions varies (Figure 2). UTFI interventions result in direct and indirect beneficiaries depending on the location. Downstream locations (A and B in Figure 2) benefit directly from flood mitigation through MAR and FM interventions. Similarly, upstream locations (C in Figure 2) benefit directly from groundwater recharge through watershed and MAR interventions. The extent of benefits and costs of interventions, however, varies between locations. There could be indirect beneficiaries who benefit from the positive externalities of these interventions. There is also a need for interventions in high slopes and forests (D in Figure 2).

Involvement and participation of local communities are critical for the success and sustainability of these interventions, which are often found to be difficult. More importantly, location of interventions and location of benefits do not overlap cleanly; i.e. interventions made by one community may also benefit some other community located elsewhere, leading to spatial inequity. Even within the community the benefits may not be distributed equally. For instance, benefits from a recharge structure may accrue more to a farmer situated nearby or to a large-scale farmer more than to a small-scale farmer as the former is capable of installing a bore well and deepening it early on, which would have been dry in the absence of a recharge structure (Reddy, 2005). Similarly, in the case of soil-conservation interventions, small-scale and marginal farmers are bound to allocate disproportionately large segments of their lands and the net benefits could be negative in the case of extremely small holdings.

Therefore, the existing institutional arrangements such as project-level committees associated with participatory flood management (Bangladesh); watershed committees (India); water user associations (India); water-management organisations (polders in Bangladesh); and forest-management committees (India and Nepal) could form the basis for UTFI institutions. These institutional arrangements are promoted under the purview of various line departments such as disaster management, irrigation, groundwater, forest and rural development or agricultural departments. These departments would be the main stakeholders in the process of institutionalising the UTFI interventions.

Thus, from an institutional perspective, the enabling conditions or prerequisites for implementing UTFI include the following:

  • Widespread environmental services associated with the interventions.

  • Clear identification of the beneficiaries (users) and providers (sellers) of these services.

  • Clear identification of the number of communities or stakeholders that are involved in the process and extent of area to be covered.

  • High benefit–cost ratio of the interventions for beneficiaries and providers.

  • Appropriate mechanisms (policy and practice) that ensure sustainability of these interventions and equitable distribution of the costs and benefits.

Institutionalising UTFI: some approaches

Institutional support is a necessary condition for effective implementation and sustaining the UTFI interventions. Given the complex nature of UTFI, institutional modalities need to be designed and tested prior to scaling up and scaling out. A review of existing institutional approaches and instruments adopted in natural resource management (NRM) in the South Asian context will form the basis for the UTFI institutional framework. Prioritising the approaches and instruments that are readily acceptable at the community as well as policy level (‘low-hanging fruits’) will become part of the institutional frame. Depending on the socioeconomic and geographic context, instruments would vary.

Performance of the institutional design needs to be assessed in terms of participation and impacts relating to economic, social and environmental sustainability (including equity) using specific indicators. At the same time constraints and bottlenecks at the community and policy level need to be identified for broader acceptance of the model. The institutional model ought to be refined by incorporating the constraints and bottlenecks. The experience at the pilot stage is likely to provide detailed inputs regarding the socioeconomic, institutional and policy requirements for adopting the institutional model in other locations within the basin and in other basins.

As explained above, UTFI implementation requires coordination and cooperation between a number of departments (stakeholders). The implementation process involves identifying the potential locations for interventions and assessing the available sites for their suitability for UTFI, and designing and creating appropriate infrastructure for flood mitigation and groundwater recharge at various locations. These structures need to be maintained and managed over the years so that they could be effective during the flood season. Local communities' involvement and participation are required at every stage of the implementation process.

Here, we discuss some of the approaches that can help to institutionalise UTFI management in the long run. It is proposed that in the process of siting, designing, piloting and assessing, valuable learning would be gained for scaling up the approaches. The idea is to borrow from different approaches, refine or modify them and put them together to deal with the specific UTFI context. In terms of the specific aspects of UTFI, the institutional approaches need to transcend or integrate different sectors and agencies dealing with them. Nevertheless, we need to identify a focal agency or institutional framework dealing with it whilst others become important cogs in the wheel rather than creating new ones (Koontz & Sen, 2013).

Watershed management is among the most appropriate flood/drought-mitigation strategies in the flood-prone/water-stressed river basins (ADPC/UNDP, 2005; Calder & Aylward, 2006). It is observed that various activities integrating watershed and land-use management in the highlands with land-use planning, engineering measures and flood preparedness coupled with emergency management in the affected lowlands would help effective flood mitigation (Calder & Aylward, 2006).

Implementing the UTFI needs to bring together the institutions dealing with watersheds in the upper catchments, groundwater, floods, irrigation, water supply, forests, agriculture and disaster management. At present these institutions work in isolation in most South Asian countries. For instance, water user associations in India manage surface water resources in terms of operation and maintenance, water distribution, etc. Similarly, water-management organisations in Bangladesh manage polders, whilst project-level committees manage floods. And forest-management committees in India and Nepal promote sustainable forest use. All these institutions have their strengths and weaknesses (Reddy & Reddy, 2002; Shaw, 2006; Reddy et al., 2010; Dewan et al., 2014; Reddy, 2014). Integrating these NRM institutions under a common institutional framework would mean taking the relevant features for UTFI from each one and adding new features that are required for UTFI management. That is, the new framework would include different approaches and instruments that can be adopted in specific socioeconomic contexts. These approaches and instruments should facilitate addressing the upstream (highlands) as well as downstream (lowlands) issues under UTFI.

In most cases funding and institutional involvement often do not go beyond their implementation period. For instance, maintaining the MAR or flood-mitigation interventions (engineering structures) and social capital (institutions) on a long-term basis is a major challenge where external financial support is lacking (Koontz & Sen, 2013). Integrating various institutional instruments required for UTFI could address the long-run financial constraints to some extent. For instance, from an Indian context, the integration of the employment guarantee programme under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), along with the NRM programmes, is expected to address the long-run financial sustainability. At a broader level, such an integrated programme could be made part of the initiatives of the Ganga Flood Control Commission or Board (GFCC or GFCB) at the basin level. Whilst national and state groundwater agencies are permanent, their involvement in managing the resource is limited due to inability to enforce laws and regulations. At the grassroots level, community-based institutional arrangements have been initiated in recent years in some places in India and Bangladesh (Sadeque, 2000; Reddy et al., 2014). Bringing these together has multiple advantages such as dealing with resource management trade-offs (irrigation vs drinking water), equity (access to groundwater between and within upstream and downstream) and fund flows. It is observed that, in the absence of an integrated approach, realising the full potential of such interventions is difficult (Reddy & Syme, 2014).

UTFI offers notable public benefits. Approaches to ‘internalise’ the public benefits need to be considered whilst assessing the benefits. Market-based and non-market or participatory/community-based approaches are assessed in this regard (for details on various approaches, see Windle et al., 2005). Both these approaches aim at bringing behavioural change towards sustainable NRM. Though these approaches are not mutually exclusive, they operate with different philosophical underpinnings. In what follows, some of the most relevant instruments for UTFI from each of these two approaches are discussed.

Market-based approach: payments for environmental services (PES)

The market-based approach works based on economic rationality of ‘polluter pays’ or ‘user pays’ principles. Market-based approaches provide cost–benefit sharing models for stakeholders and aim to promote efficient allocation of resources. Various instruments are used within market-based approaches, namely price-based, quantity-based and market-friction mechanisms (Windle et al., 2005). In the case of price-based instruments, charges or subsidies may be used to discourage or encourage a polluting or mitigating activity. Similarly, the benefits from the mitigating activity could be charged to the polluter or user when the mitigating and benefiting communities are different, which is termed payments for environmental services (PES). The basic principle behind such approaches is that those who provide the benefits (providers) are compensated through taxing or charging those who benefit (users). They include incentives towards practices such as access to credit (Pagiola & Platais, 2002) and practices such as cost sharing: namely, smart subsidies to incentivise adoption and uptake, though investment subsidies are shown to be the least effective mechanism (Krupnik, 2012). Of these market instruments, PES is more widely adopted, as the other instruments require considerable time and resources. PES has been trialled in several Asian countries including Bangladesh (Landell-Mills & Porras, 2002), China (Bennet, 2008), India (Kumar & Managi, 2009), and Sri Lanka (Kallesoe & De Alvis, 2004).

PES links environmental service providers and beneficiaries; i.e. those who benefit from environmental services should pay and those who provide should be compensated (Pagiola & Platais, 2007; Engel et al., 2008; Behera et al., 2010). PES is found to be a cost-effective means for resource conservation and sustainable ecosystem management, though field evidence has revealed that this is not always straightforward (Dillaha et al., 2007). Globally, PES is being applied to a range of ecosystem services such as land use and landscape management, forests, watersheds, biodiversity, water, hydrological services, wildlife and carbon sequestration. Economic valuation assumes significance as it is a prerequisite for developing programmes on PES. The objective is to reduce the impact of externalities by giving monetary incentives to the landowners as well as the landless (herders and others dependent on common pool resources) to implement the best management practices by regulating the use of resources without compromising livelihoods. In most cases, although the PES approach is apparently attractive, putting it into practice is far from simple.

Application of PES requires the presence of several building blocks and systematic evidence and scientific information for designing appropriate instruments. PES works if there are economic gains for buyers as well as sellers. Lack of clarity on the type and nature of environmental services to buyers as well as sellers; absence of well-defined property rights over the environmental services such as groundwater; lack of knowledge and understanding of the externalities associated with the interventions and their impacts; identifying the providers (suppliers) and users of the services (Behera et al., 2010; Scheufele & Bennet, 2013) are among the important challenges for effective PES design. Though PES is not widely adopted in South Asia, it is identified as a potential tool (Nepal et al., 2014).

Whilst PES has not been proved to be effective in alleviating poverty, PES as a tool in combination with other approaches such as command and control is more effective in sustainable resource management (Huang & Upadhyaya, 2007). Case studies from Asia (including India and Nepal) clearly show that PES can help promote sustainable resource management practices (Kerr & Jindal, 2007). However, they need to be adopted according to local context with necessary modifications. Appropriate incentives, which are not necessarily cash payments, need to be identified along with other approaches. Further, piloting of PES is required to understand the location-specific modalities. A number of experiments are going on in South Asia, where different modalities are being tried out. In the case of Himachal Pradesh, India, central government is acting as buyer on behalf of downstream states (Huang & Upadhyaya, 2007).

Non-market/participatory approaches

Non-market or participatory approaches, which are based on the principle of decentralised governance, are observed to be equally effective in achieving improved NRM (Manor, 2000). Three types of non-market approaches are observed in the context of NRM: community participation and contribution, participatory learning, and social regulation (Table 1). People's participation in terms of awareness building, their active involvement in planning, decision making and contribution (in kind or cash) in formal as well as informal approaches is widely accepted, debated and adopted across developing countries (Manor, 2000; Mosse, 2003). Though participatory learning and social regulation have been part of participatory development, they have been extended to technical fields such as groundwater management in recent years (Das & Burke, 2013; Reddy et al., 2014).

Table 1.

Proposed institutional arrangements for UTFI.

Instruments Institutions (potential) Stakeholders (departments) 
Local knowledge
Awareness building
Participatory learning
Payments for environmental services
Social regulation
Group farming (access to credit, input, output markets) 
UTFI management groups (UMC)
Water user/management organisations (polders)
Local project societies (flood mitigation)
Forest-management committees
Local government
Farmer groups 
Disaster management
Irrigation
Water development board
Agriculture
Rural development
Groundwater
Forest 
Instruments Institutions (potential) Stakeholders (departments) 
Local knowledge
Awareness building
Participatory learning
Payments for environmental services
Social regulation
Group farming (access to credit, input, output markets) 
UTFI management groups (UMC)
Water user/management organisations (polders)
Local project societies (flood mitigation)
Forest-management committees
Local government
Farmer groups 
Disaster management
Irrigation
Water development board
Agriculture
Rural development
Groundwater
Forest 

Participatory approaches to NRM, especially water, watersheds, floods, forests, etc., have been widely adopted across countries such as the United States, China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Spain and Mexico where users are registered or organised into self-governing resource user associations with a mandate to manage resources sustainably (IIMI, 1992; Villarroya & Aldwell, 1998; ADPC, 2003, 2005; Sandoval, 2004; Shaw, 2006; Shah, 2009; Dewan et al., 2014; Reddy et al., 2014). These participatory approaches cover various aspects of NRM including disasters such as floods and adopt various operational features (Table 2). Whilst some institutions such as surface-irrigation institutions have been formalised in South Asian countries, including in several states in India, their success rate is limited (Dewan et al., 2014; Reddy et al., 2014). On the other hand, participatory approaches to flood management and groundwater management are less formal and limited to few places in India and Bangladesh.

Table 2.

Salient features of participatory resource management in South Asia.

Approach Salient features 
 
  • i)

    Generation of water budgets by the local communities and community determination of crop plans

  • ii)

    Monitoring wells (water levels) by the community to assess groundwater availability and trends

  • iii)

    Community-evolved restrictions on new wells, high water use crops, etc. Sharing of water from existing well through connecting the distributaries of all wells in the location

 
 
  • i)

    O&M responsibilities

  • ii)

    Distribution of water

  • iii)

    Collecting fee

 
  • iii) Participatory irrigation management, i.e. water management organisations (WMO) in Bangladesh (Dewan et al., 2014)

 
  • i)

    O&M responsibilities

  • ii)

    Monitoring and evaluation

 
  • iv)

    Participatory flood management, i.e. local project societies (LPS) in Bangladesh (Shaw, 2006)

 
  • i)

    Community mobilisation and awareness building

  • ii)

    Use of local knowledge

  • iii)

    Flood proofing

  • iv)

    Livelihood activities

 
Approach Salient features 
 
  • i)

    Generation of water budgets by the local communities and community determination of crop plans

  • ii)

    Monitoring wells (water levels) by the community to assess groundwater availability and trends

  • iii)

    Community-evolved restrictions on new wells, high water use crops, etc. Sharing of water from existing well through connecting the distributaries of all wells in the location

 
 
  • i)

    O&M responsibilities

  • ii)

    Distribution of water

  • iii)

    Collecting fee

 
  • iii) Participatory irrigation management, i.e. water management organisations (WMO) in Bangladesh (Dewan et al., 2014)

 
  • i)

    O&M responsibilities

  • ii)

    Monitoring and evaluation

 
  • iv)

    Participatory flood management, i.e. local project societies (LPS) in Bangladesh (Shaw, 2006)

 
  • i)

    Community mobilisation and awareness building

  • ii)

    Use of local knowledge

  • iii)

    Flood proofing

  • iv)

    Livelihood activities

 

Of late, quite a few initiatives of social regulation through participatory groundwater management (PGM) approaches are being trialled in several states in India (for a review, see Reddy et al., 2014 and GoI, 2011). PGM is driven by the need to protect and sustain the over-exploited resource consequent to the top-down agenda of resource development. PGM essentially involves communities observing groundwater variables and attempting local-level groundwater planning and management (Table 2). All these initiatives are diverse in terms of scale (village, aquifer, watershed) and approach (farmers collecting data, well drillers providing information, hydrogeologists carrying out surveys, local youth being trained to map the geology). Some of these initiatives are showing positive impacts, though their technical validity and sustainability remain questionable (Reddy et al., 2014). These efforts are aimed at augmentation, conservation and improving patterns of groundwater use. These are mostly models and some successful initiatives, whose success is attributed to local leaders or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This is true even in the case of formal institutions such as water user associations in India or water-management organisations in Bangladesh. Whilst replication of these successful initiatives is not easy, learnings from these initiatives could be integrated into formal institutions such as watershed and water user associations.

Some of these initiatives have been observed as being effective and the success is attributed mainly to commitment of the NGO partners (Reddy et al., 2014). On the other hand, their sustainability is widely questioned due to lack of synergy between constitutional governance structures at the local level (Dewan et al., 2014). Besides, financial sustainability of the initiatives, coupled with the continuation of governance structures, is the main concern in most cases (Reddy & Reddy, 2002). In most of the existing institutions there is no clarity on how to organise fund flows and how to use the existing funds after the completion of the project and how to generate funds for maintaining the works. Fund requirements and flows differ from programme to programme. While MAR or flood mitigation requires substantial fund flows even after completion for maintenance, groundwater management requires less maintenance. Integrating PES with participatory approaches would reduce the financial burden on the system.

Lessons for UTFI management

Whilst developing an institutional framework involving multiple agencies is neither easy nor smooth, we need to identify and highlight the substantial additional benefits from such an approach. The socioeconomic gains at the community level help to bring them together in support. At the same time assessing opportunities in terms of identifying locations or communities where it makes economic sense to capture the excess water from flooding and store it in the aquifers for productive use afterwards is a first step in this direction. Identifying the community strengths and weaknesses to come together for collective strategies for implementing UTFI is equally important. That is, factors or initiatives that bring people together need to be assessed and tested at a pilot scale.

UTFI interventions could provide quick impacts in the flood-prone regions unlike the traditional flood-mitigation interventions. UTFI interventions provide environmental services in terms of protection from floods in the downstream and enhanced hydrological services at the upstream. Protected communities in the downstream locations can share part of their benefits from, and public allocations towards, flood mitigation with upstream communities and farmers participating in the UTFI. Implementation of payments for UTFI-related ecosystem services is at early stages in most developing countries, with some notable advances in some Latin American (Ecuador, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Guatemala) and East Asian (Indonesia, Thailand) countries (Manez-Costa & Zeller, 2005; Southgate & Wunder, 2007; George et al., 2009; Ortega-Pacheco et al., 2009; Prasetyo et al., 2009; Scheufele & Bennet, 2013). PES would facilitate distribution of these additional benefits horizontally (across space) and vertically (across socioeconomic groups). In the case of UTFI, the benefits and costs are clearer and hence it is expected that participation is voluntary and smooth.

The locations or communities that can provide optimum (least cost) storage for usage in the dry season are expected to result in the highest net benefit, even after taking the externalities across the streams into account (Kumar et al., 2012a, 2012b). In the case of either community or government as buyer and seller, there is need for an agency to be present in the PES process. This could be in the form of a government department, research organisation, an NGO or a donor agency. Though PES has the potential to deal with UTFI, it needs support from non-market approaches to address the complex issues of collective strategies and community participation for effective implementation and management.

Some of the non-market instruments or approaches such as awareness building and participatory learning are critical for designing and implementing market instruments or approaches such as PES at the community level. These approaches need to be integrated with formal or mainstream institutional arrangements that are active. At the same time the institutional models need to be redesigned to make them operational at scale. The feasibility of social regulation at scale and achieving equity in the UTFI context need further research. There is need for a more comprehensive strengthening of the mainstream or existing institutions through the integration of market and participatory approaches discussed here with scientific information and modern management practices such as those of incentive-based and paying the provider. Such a comprehensive approach would also enhance the efficiency of the ongoing programmes.

Thus, the viability of UTFI is highly dependent on proper institutional arrangements. The review on the role of market and non-market approaches in managing UTFI across the river basins indicates that these approaches have basic building blocks capable of dealing with the complex socioeconomic and resource systems and environment. Often policies are made following either market-based or participatory approaches and hence the policy formulations are neither comprehensive nor efficient in addressing the issues at hand. On the contrary, they might work in opposite directions, namely water management policies such as rainwater harvesting are made without taking into consideration the flood events, hydrogeology, capacity of aquifer storage, the resource requirements and returns to investment. The result is that these are either ineffective, uneconomical or have unintended consequences elsewhere. Integrating market and participatory approaches into the existing institutional framework for NRM (watersheds, irrigation, forests and floods) would help address some of the persistent problems such as equity, sustainability and valuation of ecosystem services associated with these interventions. Such integration would also strengthen the resource governance aspects and local ownership for global impacts. Such a (market + non-market) model can create win–win strategies for UTFI management with medium to high impacts in the context of sustainable water management compared with either market or participatory approaches. It may be noted that one of the reasons behind the most successful institutions in NRM, namely Pani Panchayats in Maharashtra or Robert Wade's village republics in Andhra Pradesh, is such integration (Deshpande & Reddy, 1990; Reddy & Reddy, 2002). Unfortunately, none of the formal institutions (so-called mainstream) could adopt such an approach.

The proposed framework would adopt appropriate market and participatory instruments (Figure 3). These include awareness building, using the local knowledge, participatory learning, payments for environmental services and social regulation. The appropriateness of the instruments would depend on the socioeconomic context. Some of them may or may not work in all locations. Whilst some of these instruments, such as awareness building and local knowledge, are widely used in a number of NRM contexts, instruments such as PES, participatory learning and social regulation are not very popular. This is because these are more complex and require intensive efforts.

Fig. 3.

Proposed institutional arrangements for UTFI.

Fig. 3.

Proposed institutional arrangements for UTFI.

For instance, adopting PES modalities and their acceptability would require the assessment of damages due to floods, preferably carried out by the communities. Apart from identifying the beneficiaries of flood mitigation, the magnitude and the timing of the payments are the main challenges in implementing PES. The magnitude of payments needs to be commensurate with the ability of the communities to pay. Ability to pay may depend on when to charge, i.e. before the damages or after the damages or on a regular (annual) basis. Insurance instruments could be used as mandatory at the individual or community level to deal with the ability to pay and to avoid free-rider problems. Initially, insurance companies could be supported by private sector (corporate social responsibility) or public sector (banks) in complementing the individual or community premiums. Similarly, farmer groups could be formed, which could enhance the ability to pay of the small-scale and marginal farmers. Whilst payments are collected from the communities that get benefits from flood-mitigation activities, compensation needs to be paid to the upstream locations where communities contribute to flood mitigation through groundwater storage (provision of lands) and supporting other interventions.

Social regulation in groundwater use appears to be a viable option to ensure equity and sustainability. Sharing of groundwater on an equitable basis with controlled exploitation and crop planning is likely to enhance livelihood security for these communities. These communities can also decide on how to use and manage the compensation received under PES. There are a number of ways this can be worked out: (i) most needy (poorest of the poor) may be given cash compensation; (ii) invest in groundwater development; and (iii) overall rural development, i.e. investing in pro-poor initiatives or in climate-smart villages, etc.

In the context of UTFI, user/stakeholder groups could be formed, namely, a UTFI management committee (UMC) that is like, or under, the farmer producer organisations (FPOs) with broader objectives, which can get support from higher-level institutions. Given the wider scale of benefits, awareness building is prerequisite for such an initiative. Awareness campaigns need to be designed in the local context and folk tradition. There appears to be lot of space and potential for NGOs in the region. Concerted policy support is needed to strengthen the sector in the region. This would help bridge the gap between the communities and the public and private financial institutions and development initiatives.

Whilst UTFI management requires the involvement of a number of departments and institutions such as those for irrigation, groundwater, and watersheds, they need to be integrated with the UMC/FPO as and when they evolve. At present departments such as irrigation and rural development are showing keen interest in the UTFI intervention in the pilot village. In fact, maintenance of UTFI structures was taken up under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREG) programme. The gram panchayat (GP) should play an overarching role of guiding and monitoring the community-based organisations (CBOs), including UMC. At present, the GP is the only active institutional anchor present at the village level. A nuanced assessment of organising the local communities to manage UTFI (say UMC) and other CBOs is needed to identify and strengthen the drivers of collective strategies in the region. This along with the design of appropriate instruments for sustainable management of UTFI interventions would be taken up.

It is proposed that different agencies would be coordinated under an existing flagship initiative3. The proposed institutional model is likely to ensure equity, sustainability and value for environmental services (internalising externalities). In most of the existing formal institutional arrangements equity impacts are often incidental rather than designed. For instance, regulated groundwater use might check degradation of groundwater to some extent but it may restrict small-scale farmers (who have not accessed groundwater so far) from accessing it. Similarly, whilst regulation of water distribution by water user associations (WUAs) has improved the access to tail-end farmers in some places, it has increased inequity in others. The proposed social regulation in the UTFI focuses on equitable distribution of existing resources through promoting sharing arrangements along with conservation and demand management. Participatory learning helps in generating scientific information and awareness building that could help avoid the ‘tragedy of commons’. Social regulation models have clearly indicated that achieving sustainability and equity objectives is neither simple nor easily forthcoming (Reddy et al., 2014). It requires working through complex rural dynamics at various levels. Policy initiatives to promote complementarity between economic, environmental and institutional initiatives are prerequisites in this regard.

Sustainability of environmental, economic and social aspects of UTFI interventions are inbuilt in the model. The model is built around the scientific knowledge in a comprehensive manner, i.e. incorporating all the technical aspects such as hydrogeology and bio-physical aspects. Adoption of appropriate methods and tools is a prerequisite for identifying the potential locations with substantial economic benefits. This would ensure environmental sustainability in terms of setting resource limitations. Scientific knowledge coupled with the socioeconomic attributes of the communities will be used to arrive at PES modalities. Designing and implementing acceptable PES models at the community level are expected to improve the economic viability of UTFI interventions. Social regulation in providing access to resources and distribution of benefits ensures equity and social sustainability.

Adaptation of PES not only enhances financial viability of UTFI but also mainstreams new knowledge on ecosystem services and their valuation in the flood-prone river basins in Asia. It is hoped that the economic valuation of ecosystems will lead to optimal use of ecosystems and signal their true and relative scarcity, condition and importance. Thus, the approach of assessing, valuing and integrating ecosystem services into the institutional framework for flood-prone regions and groundwater management could provide win–win policy strategies. The strategy is to introduce appropriate policies for implementing PES for the communities that are adapting, as well as those benefiting from, UTFI interventions. In this regard, dovetailing the national level employment programme (MGNREGA) with UTFI interventions could provide the back-up where PES is not effective in ensuring financial sustainability.

Another critical input, as well as the benefit from the proposed institutional model, is the capacity building at the local level. Local communities need capacities to understand and use the scientific knowledge and techniques required for measuring and monitoring natural resources such as groundwater. This can be achieved, as proved in some cases, with limited effort for understanding and using the technical aspects. In fact, some of the initiatives like FPOs and programmes like WSD in India have substantial fund allocations under capacity building. Mainstreaming UTFI through one such programme in the flood-prone river basins could help design a coherent policy framework for enhancing local capacities in a systematic manner.

Conclusions

The flood-prone river basins in Asia provide some ideal locations for testing the UTFI interventions, including technical as well as governance aspects. Though there is a strong rationale for effective policy attention to UTFI management in the flood-prone regions, it requires scientific and policy backing in terms of identifying potential locations and strategies in the context of rural and peri-urban/urban areas that can enhance environmental (UTFI) investments in the rural areas. UTFI interventions create additional infrastructure that needs to be maintained in the long run. This requires not only the funds but also institutions to manage the funds and natural resources in the long run.

The preceding review suggests that a comprehensive, institutional approach is required to make UTFI sustainable. It is argued that some of the existing NRM institutions could provide the basis for such a comprehensive institutional modality. However, the existing institutional structures not only need strengthening but also require new dimensions for governing UTFI. Creating user groups or CBOs for managing UTFI in the name of UMCs for planning and designing interventions on a scientific basis involving local communities (participatory learning) is a first step in this direction. Ensuring equitable benefit sharing through a socially acceptable mechanism (social regulation) and mechanisms such as PES need to be in place for achieving sustainability. At the policy level, encouraging the integrating CBOs such as UMCs under FPOs and introduction of asset management strategies into planning and budgeting (Reddy, 2014) could not only provide greater benefit flows but also reduce the financial burden on the local communities.

However, the proposed institutional modalities need to be piloted for wider acceptance and implementation. Though the suggested approach has a number of components, what is acceptable to the local communities needs to be identified to make them implementable. This would depend on the existing socioeconomic and institutional context of the selected locations. Similarly, policy interventions that would make the approaches effective and implementable need to be identified. The approaches discussed here will be piloted and assessed in the local context prior to scaling them out and up.

Acknowledgements

This work was made possible through the support of the CGIAR Research Programs on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Thanks are due to the two anonymous referees of the journal, to Dr Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Dr M. Dinesh Kumar and Ms Meera Sahasranaman for constructive comments on the earlier drafts of the paper.

1

While a number of river basins are suitable for UTFI interventions, assessments for potential UTFI interventions have been carried out for the Ganges basin in India and Chao Phraya in Thailand. This study considers Ganges basin UTFI interventions.

2

For details on technical aspects, see Pavelic et al. (2016).

3

This lead institutional frame/agency may not be the same in all locations. For instance, in India FPOs are being promoted across the country to help farmers organise better and avail themselves of better prices and access to inputs and farm machinery at reasonable prices. Bringing UMCs under their purview could provide a broader incentive frame for the communities. In countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, similar initiatives could be identified.

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